When sitting down with director David Mandel to discuss the potential visual pallets for the HBO limited series White House Plumbers, cinematographer Steven Meizler (2021 Emmy winner for The Queen’s Gambit) discovered both artists had a mutual affection for the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. All the President’s Men, yes, as that film tells the flip side of the same Watergate scandal story but also such 70s classics as The Conversation and The Parallax View.
Most specifically, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View featured several filmmaking hallmarks that served as touchstones for the series. White House Plumbers retells the infamous Watergate conspiracy of the early 1970s through the lens of two of its primary motivators: E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). Given the era, Meizler and Mandel understood that The Parallax View‘s cinematic language offered an overall sense of paranoia and suspicion that worked perfectly for their limited series.
“We were riding a very fine line because we were trying to tell something that is very serious but, obviously, has a broadly comic tone to it. When we were trying to explore the comedic side, we were using wider lenses. Something that we used in our visual language was to have Hunt and Liddy’s characters in a two shot. So, wider lenses helped out with that,” Meizler explained. “For the paranoia and that surveillance feel, we added some zooms and a sense of a voyeur looking at what these people were going through. We blended those things in a little homage to 70s thrillers, but we also wanted to make it our own too.”
In addition to employing cinematic shots from the era, Meizler leveraged lower camera angles to simulate a claustrophobic atmosphere as tension increased in the series. As seen in the The Parallax View, Hunt and Liddy’s world needed to feel as if it were closing in around them as the Watergate conspiracy unraveled. He achieved this effect by shooting from a low angle and frame them against the ceiling as if the ceiling was weighing down on them. The low angle provided a nice dual effect by not only making the characters seem powerful and larger than life but also giving them the claustrophobic sense that something was coming. Something they didn’t know about; something they couldn’t avoid.
Given much of White House Plumbers focuses on the collaboration / begrudging friendship between Hunt and Liddy, Meizler needed to underscore the differences between the two men both personally and professionally. To help achieve the distinctions between their work and home lives, the production filmed home scenes — particularly Hunt’s — using a handheld camera in a space highlighted with earth tones. It created a sense of an environment he never truly felt at home in. That contrasted with his slick work life filmed in slower takes using carefully choreographed camera moves.
Another prominent visual theme throughout White House Plumbers is the pervasive use of shadows. Feels appropriate given the espionage theming of the piece. In fact, Mandel wanted Meizler to increasingly lean into the use of shadows.
“It’s funny because, usually on the shows that I shoot, I always tend to go darker. I’m always told by the studio and sometimes the director to go brighter and brighter. In this case, David was actually like, ‘Let’s go darker! Let’s go darker!’ It was really nice thing,” Meizler laughed. “Going dark organically lent itself to showing that these are really seedy things that are happening.”
Several sequences within the limited series were shot under the cover of night, allowing for extensive opportunities where characters navigate patches of light while thematically and physically hiding in the shadows. But playing with shadows and light also extended to daytime sequences. Meizler pointed to a scene in episode four, “The Writer’s Wife,” where John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) exits the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) and Liddy confronts him directly outside. They engage in a traditional “walk and talk” shot that takes them through a shadowy landscape while the massive EEOB looms behind them in full sunlight.
That sequence and the usage of the EEOB would not be the only opportunity for Meizler to lens the characters against the massive and iconic architecture of Washington, DC.
“You have all of these monstrous buildings like the Watergate, the EEOB, and so forth that are looming over all of these people,” Meizler said. “It again connects with The Parallax View in the way that these massive events are happening to small people, but they’re also bringing down what our government is.”
Later in the series, Hunt and Liddy are convicted and incarcerated for their crimes. The prison in which the production filmed was actually an abandoned prison that needed a great deal of work before production could take place within it. Here, Meizler went back to handheld cameras and allowed the yellowness of the interior lights and the blueness of the outside to give those sequences a completely different look from the rest of the show.
He also employed tighter lenses to accentuate the end of Hunt and Liddy’s relationship as depicted in the end of the series.
“This is where it comes to blows. Choosing life over country and defining where our moral values come from. I think it was an interesting place to shoot. Obviously, it happened in real life, but still it was a really interesting place to shoot.”
White House Plumbers streams exclusively on MAX. The series finale drops Monday, May 29.